I’ve seen countless movies revolving around the concept and execution of love. Far from a foreign concept in film, most of these love stories get recycled over and over again, with different variations cropping up nearly every weekend with new releases. Streaming services come out with these romantic movies and series constantly. All of this makes the love story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that much more striking and important.
Something incredible happens about midway through Céline Sciamma’s lesbian love story: you find yourself wholly invested in this relationship. It takes up the most important corner of your mind. Cinematographer Claire Mathon and Sciamma work together to create special moments through the use of camera movements and focuses. In each scene of dialogue, of action, or even of pure stillness, the camera keeps each woman as the center of attention.
Their faces fill the dead center of the screen, and instead of using over-the-shoulder shots and other usual devices, Mathon continues to put them front and center. Even when both women are on the screen, she keeps only one of them in view, leading to this absolutely breathtaking couple of seconds.
By doing this, Sciamma and Mathon don’t allow you to think about anything else in the film. You only consider the face on the screen, with the weight of each of their emotions. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel use subtle facial expressions to break your heart, put it back together again, and break it once again. The cinematographer remains utterly fantastic and unmatched, giving you reason to be attentive and hyper-focused. Portrait of a Lady on Fire never loses you, or allows you to leave its world, and for the overwhelming majority of the film, you’re more than happy to sit, walk, and paint with these women.
The love in Sciamma’s film feels real in its forbidden nature. The timing is off. The circumstances are less than ideal, to put it mildly. Her intent to tell a forbidden lesbian romance story deserves an amount of admiration and immense respect. It’s a period piece focusing on those largely ignored in period pieces: women and particularly lesbians. Though there were definite similar themes in Yorgos Lanthimos’sThe Favourite, that film dealt less with love and more with power and status. In Sciamma’s film, the opposite is true, flirting with the notions of status within the world of high art, but focusing on the power of love, not the power of the crown.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire affects you. It takes ahold of you (and your heart) and doesn’t let go for the 121-minute runtime. With outstanding performances and a sharp script, Sciamma’s film becomes a rare piece of cinema in your mind: one that pushes you to refocus your life, and your moviegoing experiences, around love. It plays out like a painting itself, slowly becoming more gorgeous and telling as time goes on.
This film is special. It puts your gaze directly on the beauty, the ugly, the fantasy, and the reality of love, with varying intersection layered beneath. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has power, weight, and importance, and for many, will be one of the best films of the year and an early contender for the best love story of 2020.
Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has released 23 feature films. The combined budget for these films hovers around $4.5 billion while the combined box office adds up to more than $22.5 billion. Audiences love these movies, and our view of a superhero has morphed in the process. We look for superheroes to have at least one of a variety of traits, including but not limited to super strength, teleportation, mind control, suits with super armor, a godly hammer, or even just an array of assassin skills. With each new film, our expectations for a superhero and their abilities raise
Enter writer/director Julia Hart (Miss Stevens) and actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Motherless Brooklyn) and their film Fast Color. Hart’s movie focuses in on Ruth (Mbatha-Raw), a woman who has powers she cannot control, which cause earthquakes. Her abilities cause destruction, and we her on the run from the law and from scientists hoping to capture and study her.
After a couple close calls, she decides to head home, finding her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and abandoned daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) living somewhat happily. Both also have these powers, and can see “the colors,” which Ruth hasn’t seen in years once she lost control of how to use her superhuman features. The women decide to help Ruth take back her life, her body, and her powers, as Ruth hopes to reconnect to her mother, her daughter, and herself in the process. The setup looks like a far cry from those Marvel movies we’ve come to know and love.
The difference between Marvel and Fast Color is in the protagonists. In most superhero or at least superhuman films, those with the powers save someone or something. They are protectors, last lines of defense. In Hart’s film, the superhero needs saving. She asks for help, and she’s the destructive force in the universe. An oddly poetic story follows, which pushes the narrative that we all require saving from time to time, and that superhuman abilities don’t need to translate into saving the world.
Mbatha-Raw gives more of herself as the film progresses, and the performance actually becomes much better after a few weeks of reflection. Fast Color is the first superhero movie, outside of Black Panther, that stuck itself in the corner of the mind, existing more as a thought-provoker than a one-time explosive experience. Hart’s film also becomes more beautiful as Ruth rediscovers her powers, and finally sees “the colors,” a worthy wait for the audience. Once she, and we in turn, see them, it all begins to have meaning on a deeper level and resonance beyond just a mother/daughter story.
Though it falters during a few scenes and the dialogue can be a bit shaky, Fast Color holds a weight in its hands, and changes how you think about the (de-glamorized) superhero as human instead of godly. It puts a face to a genre that usually is filled with masks and suits. It shows the pains and difficulties, instead of the heroics. Ruth’s gender and ethnicity only add to the nuance and importance of Fast Color, as you learn that she deserves screen time just as much as the Avengers, the Eternals, and any other group of people we assign admiration and value to as a society.
Fast Color and its hero have more than superhuman powers, they have drive and purpose, and intent to do good in the world. If more movies follow suit, a new superhero will be formed, one void of perfection and full of promise.
What a year! After seeing over 100 new releases, some which blew my mind, some which didn’t shake my brain at all, I can say with confidence that I loved in film in 2019. We were given films by the greats including Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodovar, as well as films from rising stars like Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, and the Safdie Brothers. I laughed. I cried. I left the theaters confused several times. A fantastic year for film.
A simple hobby that has transformed into something much more, film criticism is such a messy, enjoyable, frustrating, and passionate way to spend time, and I’m glad several people find my writing good enough to publish. It’s been quite an honor, and quite a year.
My top 10 films of the year is a list that has changed too many times to count. It features movies I loved, I respected, and I found important to me, to others, and to society. Let’s start with some honorable mentions and countdown from 10.
Sword of Trust: a concept that is both hilarious and fascinating, this film written and directed by Lynn Shelton brought me a huge amount of joy. Marc Maron was made to play a pawn shop owner.
The Irishman: undeniable in its acting and ambition, Scorsese’s monster of a film features incredible supporting performances from Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. The final hour left me in a state of provocation and questioning.
Her Smell: Alex Ross Perry’s five vignettes on a rocker with a huge ego are some of the tensest minutes I’ve felt this year. Elisabeth Moss gives all of herself, and this film deserves more awards recognition. People will be watching this long after we’re gone.
The Peanut Butter Falcon: one of the most enjoyable times I had in a theater in the last few years. Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen are both splendid and boy oh boy did I leave with a big smile on my face.
10. Knives Out by Rian Johnson
Funny, quirky, and just plain smart, Rian Johnson’s whodunit gave me and entire audiences a reason to truly laugh at the movies. Incredible set design and fantastic performances abound to make Johnson’s follow-up to The Last Jedi a holiday favorite in 2019. It’s the perfect film to take a date to, to take your grandparents to, and even to take your kids to, making it an accessible murder mystery, three words rarely put together. There’s a reason we haven’t seen a good whodunit in recent years, and why Agatha Christie continues to be the gold standard: it’s difficult to write and and make a sensible one! Most of all, Johnson achieves a sense of realism regardless of its ridiculousness. It makes sense! Featuring a Daniel Craig performance for the ages including a doughnut scene that should be performed in monologue classes, Knives Out only gets better with time.
9. The Farewell by Lulu Wang
When I bought a ticket to see Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, I didn’t know much about it. I knew that Awkwafina was starring, and that someone’s grandma was sick. It became the emotional event of the year, and for those of us that have lost grandmas to cancer, a powerful love letter to these women that help mold us. Solidly acting with an incredible performance from grandma Zhao Shuzhen, Wang’s autobiographical work tears your heart open, filling it with compassion, care, and a family’s desire to make the right choices. The film completely wraps you in the arms of this family, and by the end of it, you feel like this decision is as much yours as theirs. You want to be at their big dinners. You want to be practicing Shuzhen’s yoga techniques. And you certainly want to be invited to every wedding moving forward. Thank you Lulu Wang for reminding me how much I love my my grandmas.
8. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers
In 2019, one of the best pieces of filmmaking that Netflix released, and got lost in the shuffle, was Your Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, written and directed by Canadian women Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. Playing out in real time with Tailfeathers starring opposite fellow indigenous Canadian Violet Nelson, the film follows two women in the aftermath of an assault to Nelson. Tailfeathers happened to be walking by, and so the two experience the next 90 minutes together, figuring out the following course of action. Serious, moving, and real, the story works as any coincidental relationship and any situation in life would, with arduous difficulty in making important decisions. It deals with weighty themes like assault and abuse with a tender yet firm sense of reality, deciding to let you sit with these characters instead of rush with them. This film is one of the most important in 2019, and I personally urge you to seek it out.
7. Little Women by Greta Gerwig
Breathing fresh air into an adaptation we’ve seen plenty of times, Greta Gerwig continues to make solid films. She is one of our best directors currently working, and in my opinion, one of the best writers in Hollywood. She crafts this oft-told story in a gripping way, and the time you spend with the March sisters is a special treat. The subtlety in the performances sticks into your mind, with Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet stealing scenes. I’d watch Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan do any movie together, though. They have the ability to go down with the great pairings in history, and their constant excellence is tremendous. Gerwig toys with several themes in the film, but her intentionality to focus on wealth drives home the film. Ronan as Gerwig’s muse is one of the revelations of the decade.
6. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino
The warmest of Quentin Tarantino’s nine films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features the best stretch of filmmaking in 2019. As Margot Robbie travels through Westwood as Sharon Tate to see herself in a film, Leonardo DiCaprio performs scenes on a TV western set and Brad Pitt continues his “cool guy of 2019” campaign while dealing with the Manson family at Spahn Ranch. A sequence smack in the middle of the movie, these three actors each flash their brilliance in hilarious, sentimental, and enjoyable scenes that show just how far Tarantino has come as a filmmaker. It’s a section of the film that can be rewatched countless times, each time noticing a little bit more of the perfection. This film will be near the top come Oscar season and for good reason. Give Pitt an Oscar!
5. Uncut Gems by the Safdie Brothers
A couple of times each decade, Adam Sandler rises up from the depths of Netflix vacation to make a film worthy of critical acclaim. For many, Uncut Gems will be the first time they’ve seen Sandler in a serious role, and he sure is impressive in this one. Radiating all sorts of big energy, he gives a mania to this role as New York jeweler and gambler, somehow making this scummy criminal into a likable leading figure. Joining him is Kevin Garnett in the best performance by an NBA star since Ray Allen in He Got Game, Julia Fox as a newcomer people can’t stop talking about, and Lakeith Stanfield with an amount of chill that fits into this non-stop film by the Safdie brothers. A film that makes you anxious, excited, and overwhelmed all at once, Uncut Gems creates a world of insanity similar to Good Time with an incredible score to match it. And you learn a bit about gambling and the NBA scene in the early 2010s!
4. Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-Ho’sParasite handles themes of poverty, classism, family structures and values, love, murder, and revenge to name a few with a measure of grace only achieved by a filmmaker who has a clear vision. A shoe-in to be South Korea’s first-ever Oscar nomination, the film constantly keeps you guessing, and the best way to see it is with an open mind and a lack of knowledge regarding the plot and characters. Killer performances resonate in every scene and it’s clear-cut the most fascinating movie I saw in 2019. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it immediately. Put it at the top of your list. The movie will make history, and deservedly so.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma
A film bursting with love, Portrait of a Lady on Fire demands an audience. The well-matched leads give life to Sciamma’s simple screenplay and you have a desire to live in this beached world for much longer than the runtime. It truly is a gorgeous film, an ode to forbidden lesbian love and to the restorative power of relationships. The depth in which the film operates brings it to another level, and we should be happy this story exists in our shattered world. Something to note: instead of opting for over-the-shoulder shots in conversation and in focus of its characters, the cinematographer and Sciamma allow these women to fill up the screen. Each woman is the center of the screen in every situation, as though they’re talking directly to you, and this story is the all that we need to focus on, with nothing to distract us. If multiple characters are on screen, they even have them block one another, creating some truly beautiful moments. It’s a specific tactic that pays off big time, and these women fill the screen with poise, beauty, and a whole lot of love.
2. Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach
The best script of the year, Marriage Story finds Baumbach in top form, taking the snappy writing of Frances Ha and mashing it together with semi-autobiographical experiences. Adam Driver gives the performance of the year and for the most part, Scarlett Johansson matches his step for step. The supporting cast shines with Alan Alda and resident 2019 Monterey queen Laura Dern providing memorable moments. It picks you up only to crush you back down, wrestling with your heart and emotions, giving you time to think about all of the fights you’ve had in your own life. With a score and even some singing as supplement, Baumbach makes another movie that gives more than it takes, and provides us with more relatable characters in film. The best part of the movie, though, is that you relate to both of them.
1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco by Joe Talbot
One of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever witnessed, The Last Black Man in San Francisco gives us all the opportunity to witness what Joe Talbot and friend/collaborator/lead actor Jimmie Fails can accomplish with a bit of capital. The San Francisco natives made a film that breathes beauty and community, shifting within themes of gentrification and belonging and family. The culmination creates an accurate picture of the city on the bay in all of its frustration, wealth, hills, creativity, and glory. Led by a strong yet solemn lead performance by Fails, the film gives supporting actor Jonathan Majors a chance to shine, representing our common need to be accepted and loved by our community, or to even find a community we can call our own. The film should live on in Northern California as one of the best films to show the city of San Francisco as a character worth watching, and firmly establishes Talbot and Fails as two filmmakers with heartfelt intentions and tremendous abilities.
Something incredible happens in the middle of Rian Johnson’s new whodunit Knives Out. You think you know all of the twists and turns. Much has already been revealed. You’ve already heard Daniel Craig talk with an incredible Southern accent. But then, he starts chatting about doughnuts, holes, and doughnut holes.
The monologue lasts for about three minutes, but it remains the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in 2019. Craig gives everything he has to play detective Benoit Blanc, the famed sleuth with a French name, a molasses accent, and a nose for the truth. Craig himself looks to be having a Logan Lucky amount of fun, another film featuring an accent from the Englishman. Just watch 30 seconds of this clip.
Pretty incredible, right? Now multiply that by a million and you’ll get Craig’s accent in Knives Out. Watching an actor who plays James Bond speak with such silly freedom and joy cannot be understated.
Craig’s counterparts join in on the fun, though. Johnson’s cast fills your heart with stars of varying degrees taking their familial roles seriously, regardless of the absurdity surrounding them. You can’t help but smile along with Craig, and you assume that Johnson is smiling behind the camera as well.
Knives Out is an oddity, though: a murder mystery that stays coherent until the final shot, a riotous one at that. Though Craig shines, Ana de Armas steals scenes, giving a warm and thoughtful performance throughout the film. The rest of the family, a solid Jamie Lee Curtis, a hilarious Toni Collette, a terrifying Michael Shannon, and a jaded Chris Evans fill in the gaps.
The cast reaches near perfection, and we have casting director Mary Vernieu to thank. Not enough casting directors get thanked in articles. So, Mary, this one’s for you. With nearly 400 credits to her name, Mary Vernieu was the casting director on 27 films and series this year, including HBO’s Euphoria, The Beach Bum, Dolemite Is My Name, and even John Wick 3: Parabellum. No doubt that she is one of the best in the business.
Quick aside: Craig’s accent most closely aligns with another comedic performance for the ages: the beloved but sometimes hated Andy Bernard of The Office.
To see Craig’s accent as well as this entire cast having a ball, I implore you to see Knives Out in theaters. If you’re in a somewhat full theater, the audience helps carry you along, providing ample laughters for you and everyone around you. You can bring your whole family, as Johnson’s film provides something for everyone. The movie itself is a family affair, and seeing it should be the same.
Watching this film felt like an experience. People showed up to the theater 15 minutes early to get a seat, everyone had popcorn, and there wasn’t a cellphone in sight. It enveloped me, my fellow moviegoers, and the entire theater in its enjoyable and intriguing mystery, a rare accomplishment.
The act of going to the movies should be fun. You need to leave happy that you spent two hours in that dark room, glad to have left the house and spent a bit of money. Knives Out checks each and every one of those boxes.